Margaret Sanger's struggle to legalise birth control in USA
Birth control has been an oft debated topic for a very long time now. There are many who argue that it is not within our rights to decide when a new life will be allowed to see the light of day, neither is it morally ethical that a life be denied the right to be born. However, other pro-choice arguments validate that a woman’s body is her sole property and she should have the right to dictate when to have a child. In fact, there are some races, countries and religion that are of the opinion that birth control is an illegal practice.
The movement to legalise birth control and to make it a significant part of the lives of women, especially those who were of the lower income group, was initiated in the USA in 1914. It continued unabated, amidst much opposition till the 1945 but was successful in increasing the availability of contraception in America. The movement also educated women on how to use birth control and ensured that they knew their rights.
In 1914, a group of women led by Margaret Sander, Emma Goldman and Mary Dennett voiced their concerns regarding the unfortunate physical hardship that childbirth, forced abortions as well as self induced abortions that lower income women endured.
Couples used prehistoric techniques of birth control prior to this, which were ineffective and impractical. Practical information on birth control was considered as a sin and the practice of the same was banned. However, these three women took the initiative to change the laws that prohibited distribution of material that was deemed lascivious or obscene via the mail and specifically highlighted contraception as one such banned topic of discussion. Seeing that this was difficult, Margaret Sanger then deliberately broke the law by circulating The Women Rebel, a newsletter containing information on contraception. In 1916, she even opened a birth control clinic - the first of its kind, which was promptly shut down by the police and Sanger was jailed for a month. However, the wheels were in motion and Sanger’s activities were making people sit up and take notice of her thought process.
A major breakthrough in the mentality against birth control took place during the World War 1. Many US soldiers were diagnosed to have venereal (sexually transmitted) diseases and the government reacted with an anti-venereal disease campaign. The topics included in this campaign were safe sexual intercourse and the necessity of using protection as well as contraception. These topics were deemed as legitimate issues which required research and discussion as they were in the interest of public health. This was very encouraging for Sanger who opened a second birth control clinic in 1923, enthused by the fact that contraception had now transformed into an issue for public health instead of a moral based problem. This was the first time, a conservative society had initiated a public discussion on topics such as sexual health and sexual matters – which was a great big deal at that time.
There were no arrests the second time Sanger opened her clinic, no one protested or opposed the move. In fact, gradually, the discussion of contraception became more public and common and Americans accepted the term “birth control” without shunning it as an immoral vice. However, the downside of this was that society slowly transformed from being conservative about sex – almost Victorian in their stance – to sexually open and permissive.
The movement to legalise birth control continued through the 1930s and in 1937, the America Medical Association adopted contraception as a significant topic in the curriculum of medical schools, giving it the importance it deserved and lacked before. Of course, the methods discussed and encouraged were slow to catch on and women continued to rely on unsafe methods of contraception for a long while. To further remedy this, in 1942, Planned Parenthood Federation of America was formed that created a national network of birth control clinics to further encourage and educate women on the subject.
Post the second World War, the contraception was fully legalised and accepted by the medical community and no anti-contraception laws were enforced or encouraged. Margaret Sanger’s victory was complete as her birth control clinics had evolved in to the Planned Parenthood network and America was benefiting from the movement that she started.